Two devils in white come to call

Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his own thoroughly disturbing 1997 home-invasion drama, Funny Games, is similar in both its details (same Range Rover, same electronic driveway gates) and its overall mess-with-your-mind creepiness.

However, unlike other films that prey on our darkest fears of violation and violence at the hands of psychos, Funny Games offers the audience no hope of winning the day. Well, Haneke offers glimmers of hope, and then yanks them away - with malicious glee.

This is not a spoiler so much as a warning: Haneke is more interested in mulling the manner in which audiences respond to violence than he is in describing how his characters - the victims, the ones we identify with - respond to the threats of bodily harm and worse.

Ann (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) and little Georgie (Devon Gearhart) have gone to their posh, perfect country house for a few days of R & R, of sailing and sleeping in, socializing and solitude. But after unloading the SUV and putting the boat in the water, a couple of strangers in tennis whites show up at the door. Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) are polite and smiling young men who have dropped by to borrow some eggs - which is all fine and dandy, except what's with the white gloves? And why, after a few awkward mishaps, won't they leave?

First sign that things are seriously amiss: the sudden silence of the family dog. Second sign: George getting whacked in the knee with one of his own golf clubs. Paul and Peter are clearly here to stay, to wink and to nod and to make cynical observations about their state of mind. ("He's jaded and disappointed by the emptiness of existence," says Paul of Peter, excusing his cohort's brutal behavior.) And they are here to pass the evening entertaining each other by tormenting, torturing and ultimately killing their reluctant hosts.

No need to go into the details, but if you've seen the original, you'll know what to expect, including that shot of the TV screen, and the profoundly jarring use of the remote control. Haneke isn't graphic: He doesn't dwell on the details of the viciousness, just the jolting buildups, the awful aftermaths.

Watts, who is one of the film's executive producers, brings a taut intelligence to the proceedings, but her character, like Roth's, is more archetype than actual person. Here are the well-to-do husband and wife, here is their cute son, and uh-oh, here's their worst nightmare - the sociopathic sadist twins plunked down on the living room couch. Pitt and Corbet fulfill their duties with alarming aplomb.

Haneke, the Austrian director whose Cache explored like-minded themes of paranoia, menace, and toggling realities (the hero's reality, and the moviegoer's), is devilishly smart. He's an adept manipulator who goes one better by calling attention to his manipulations, questioning them, and then, still, managing to freak us out in the coldest, cruelest ways.


Funny Games *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Michael Haneke. With Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet and Devon Gearhart. Distributed by Warner Independent Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, menace, child in jeopardy, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.